URBANA — A 7-month-old housecat's story of survival has elicited compassion and donations from cat lovers around the globe.
Dutchess, who continues to receive around-the-clock care at the University of Illinois Small Animal Clinic emergency room, was severely burned in a blaze that destroyed her family's Saybrook home on Sept. 18.
Jackie Jones and her two children, 8-year-old Braden Baker and 3-year-old Nathaniel Watson, were not at home when the fire occurred; Jones' boyfriend, Michael Watson, managed to escape with minor injuries. The family's 2-year-old pit bull, Deke, did not survive the blaze.
Toni Day, a Gibson City firefighter who helped to rescue Dutchess from the house fire, has led the effort to raise funds for the cat's medical treatments.
Said Day, "The Gibson City Fire Department was called to assist on the house fire. When we arrived at the scene, most of the fire was already out. I don't know which crew was inside at the time, but one of the guys found Dutchess and handed her out the window to me. I checked her, and she had second and third degree burns on her face and on her front and back paws."
Dutchess was wrapped in a wet cloth to stop the burning. Day said she had to return to firefighting, so she left Dutchess in the hands of a willing bystander, who comforted the burned cat, and then offered to transport her to the veterinary clinic at Central Illinois Small Animal Rescue.
Day followed up with a call to CISAR the next day and was surprised to learn that, against all odds, Dutchess had survived the night.
"When pets are that severely burned, they usually don't make it. The risk of infection is really high," said Day.
Day later visited Dutchess at CISAR.
Day said she stayed in touch with Jones by phone and text to follow Dutchess' progress. When Jones transported Dutchess to the UI Veterinary Teaching Hospital for burn treatments the following weekend, Day learned from Jones that the family would not be able to afford the cat's mounting medical bills, after having lost everything in the fire.
Day said she decided to create a Facebook page about the cat's ordeal, to solicit donations for her treatments. She put in a direct link to the UI Vet Med's secure donation site, as well as ChipIn link that allows payments through PayPal's secure online payment service.
"After being rescued, I wanted to make sure she got the best of care over at the University of Illinois vet ER clinic. In order to do this, we needed to make sure her bill was taken care of. So I set out to share her story with as many people as possible on Facebook," said Day.
Dutchess's page was shared on other Facebook pages, and her page views grew accordingly. The result has been a steady stream of support for Dutchess, with donations coming in from as far afield as Australia, the Netherlands, France and Tokyo, said Day.
"She has taken Facebook by storm. This amazing kitten has managed to capture the hearts of so many people," said Day.
But the donations don't quite yet equal the estimated total expense. Day said Dutchess's veterinary treatments will likely end up totaling somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000. The Illinois Vet Med emergency care fund covered the first $500 of Dutchess's care, and donations so far total about $2,225.
"We need to try to raise at least another $700 to complete her care at the U of I, and we are hoping to raise $1,100, to repay the emergency fund to the U of I," said Day.
On Sunday, Jones and Day met in person for the first time at the clinic and were able to spend some quality time with Dutchess.
Jones said Dutchess' condition is beginning to improve: "As of now, Dutchess is finally eating and gaining weight. The doctor said her burns will heal, though she may have a little bit of hair loss and a little bit of vision loss."
Jones said donations to the family of clothes, furniture and household items have also come in since the house fire, and she and her family would like to say thank you to the community.
"We are so very grateful for the huge outpouring of help. We are getting back on our feet," she said.
Dutchess is expected to be released and back with her family around mid-October.
To read Dutchess's story on Facebook, go to https://www.facebook.com/TheDutchessBurnFund .
To make a donation directly through Illinois Vet Med's secure site, please visit http:/go.illinois.edu/givetovetmed and enter "Dutchess Jones" in the "Other" box.